|Slavery in the United States||American West||Civil Rights Movement|
Elizabeth Eckford was born in Little Rock in 1942. Like most children in the Deep South, Eckford went to a segregated school. The states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky all prohibited black and white children from attending the same school.
In 1952 the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People appealed to the Supreme Court that school segregation was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that separate schools were acceptable as long as they were "separate and equal". It was not too difficult for the NAACP to provide information to show that black and white schools in the South were not equal.
After looking at information provided by the NAACP, the Supreme Court announced in 1954 that separate schools were not equal and ruled that they were therefore unconstitutional. Some states accepted the ruling and began to desegregate. However, several states in the Deep South, including Arkansas, refused to accept the judgment of the Supreme Court.
On 4th September, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford and eight other African American students attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School, a school that previously had only accepted white children. The governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, was determined to ensure that segregation did not take place and sent the National Guard to stop the children from entering the school.
On 24th September, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower, went on television and told the American people: "At a time when we face grave situations abroad because of the hatred that communism bears towards a system of government based on human rights, it would be difficult to exaggerate the harm that is being done to the prestige and influence and indeed to the safety of our nation and the world. Our enemies are gloating over this incident and using it everywhere to misrepresent our whole nation. We are portrayed as a violator of those standards which the peoples of the world united to proclaim in the Charter of the United Nations."
After trying for eighteen days to persuade Orval Faubus to obey the ruling of the Supreme Court, Eisenhower decided to send federal troops to Arkansas to ensure that black children could go to Little Rock Central High School. The white population of Little Rock were furious that they were being forced to integrate their school and Faubus described the federal troops as an army of occupation. Elizabeth Eckford and the eight other African American children at the school suffered physical violence and constant racial abuse. Parents of four of the children lost their jobs because they had insisted in sending them to a white school. Eventually Orvel Faubus decided to close down all the schools in Little Rock.
In 1958 Elizabeth Eckford moved to St. Louis, Missouri where she achieved the necessary qualifications to study for a B.A. in history. After university she became the first African American in St. Louis to work in a bank in a non-janitorial position.
Elizabeth Eckford eventually moved back to Little Rock, Arkansas, and is now the mother of two sons.
Elizabeth Eckford attempting to enter Little Rock School
on 4th September, 1957. The girl shouting is Hazel Massery.
(1) Elizabeth Eckford was interviewed about her attempts to gain entry to the school on the first day of term in 1957.
At the corner I tried to pass through the long line of guards around the school so as to enter the grounds behind them. One of the guards pointed across the street. So I pointed in the same direction and asked whether he meant for me to cross the street and walk down. He nodded 'yes.' So, I walked across the street conscious of the crowd that stood there, but they moved away from me.
For a moment all I could hear was the shuffling of their feet. Then someone shouted, 'Here she comes, get ready!' I moved away from the crowd on the sidewalk and into the street. If the mob came at me I could then cross back over so the guards could protect me.
The crowd moved in closer and then began to follow me, calling me names. I still wasn't afraid. Just a little bit nervous.
Then my knees started to shake all of a sudden and I wondered whether I could make it to the center entrance a block away. It was the longest block I ever walked in my whole life.
Even so, I still wasn't too scared because all the time I kept thinking that the guards would protect me.
When I got in front of the school, I went up to a guard again. But this time he just looked straight ahead and didn't move to let me pass him. I didn't know what to do. Then I looked and saw the path leading to the front entrance was a little further ahead. So I walked until I was right in front of the path to the front door.
I stood looking at the school - it looked so big! Just then the guards let some white students through.
The crowd was quiet. I guess they were waiting to see what was going to happen. When I was able to steady my knees, I
walked up to the guard who had let the white students in. He too didn't move. When I tried to squeeze past him, he raised his bayonet and then the other guards moved in and they raised their bayonets.
They glared at me with a mean look and I was very frightened and didn't know what to do. I turned around and the crowd came toward me.
They moved closer and closer. Somebody started yelling, 'Lynch her! Lynch her!'
I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the mob - someone who maybe would help. I looked into the face of an old woman and it seemed a kind face, but when I looked at her again, she spat on me.
They came closer, shouting, 'No nigger bitch is going to get in our school. Get out of here!'
I turned back to the guards but their faces told me I wouldn't get any help from them. Then I looked down the block and saw a bench at the bus stop. I thought, If I can only get there I will be safe.' I don't know why the bench seemed a safe place to me, but I started walking toward it. I tried to close my mind to what they were shouting, and kept saying to myself, If I can only make it to the bench I will be safe.
When I finally got there, I don't think I could have gone another step. I sat down and the mob crowded up and began
shouting all over again. Someone hollered, 'Drag her over to this tree! Let's take care of that nigger.' Just then a white man sat down beside me, put his arm around me and patted my shoulder. He raised my chin and said, 'Don't let them see you cry.'
(2) Elizabeth Eckford was interviewed about her experiences at Little Rock High School by Peter Lennon in The Guardian (30th December, 1998)
I was fifteen in September, 1957. At the time I thought the National Guard were there to protect all students. I thought they were there to see that order was maintained. I didn't realise they were there to keep me out of school. My teachers expected there might be name-calling, but I thought that eventually we would be accepted.
I was brought up to believe that students respected adults' orders. That was our expectation, because that was what occurred in the school that we had attended. I had never seen adults appease students who were behaving badly. Many of them did that day, and many of the teachers tried to sit on the fence, tried not to take any side at all. I did not know that Governor Orval Faubus would side with the segregationists.
Another day, we tried again. The soldiers told us to get into the car, get our heads down and drove us into the basement by the side entrance of the building. So the mob did not realise we were in. When they did they attacked the black news men who were outside. There were FBI men observing all this and they did nothing to stop it. Then Governor Faubus gave the citizens of Little Rock two choices: keep the schools open and de-segregate or close down all the schools. The vote was to close down the schools and for a full year no school, white or black, operated in Little Rock.
Of the thousands of students affected, only a few could afford to send their children to families in other cities or boarding schools out of state. I stayed in town and took a correspondence course. Since my parents were accustomed to paying for my books, this was not so difficult. But four of the nine families had to move out, their parents lost their jobs because of pressure on them not to send their children back to school.
By 1960, the entire state of Arkansas had suffered economically. For years no new industry would come in, and the officials began to change their rhetoric. My definition of a Southern white moderate is someone who reluctantly accepts the law.
(3) Hazel Massery was one of the white students who attempted to stop Elizabeth Eckford and the other eight African Americans from entering Little Rock School (see photograph above). She was interviewed by Peter Lennon in The Guardian (30th December, 1998)
I am not sure at that age what I thought, but probably I overheard that my father was opposed to integration. I vividly remember that the National Guard was going to be there. But I don't think I was old enough to have any convictions of my own yet. I was just mirroring my adult environment. I wasn't following Elizabeth. She happened to come along, the crowd shifted and I was standing in that spot so I just went along with the crowd.
I soon forget about it all. I married as a teenager, right out of school. I was not quite 17. But there was Martin Luther King's Civil Rights activities and gradually you began to think that even though he was a trouble-maker, all the while, deep in your soul, that he was right.
I think motherhood brings out the protection or care in a person. I had a sense of deep remorse that I had wronged another human being because of the colour of her skin. But you are also looking for relief and forgiveness, of course, more for yourself than for the other person.
I called her (Elizabeth Eckford). The first meeting was very awkward. What could I say to her? I thought of something finally and we kind of warmed up. The families are not at ease about this relationship. Housing is still strictly segregated in Little Rock. There is some tension regarding our safety. On one side there are blacks who feel Elizabeth has betrayed them by becoming friends with me, and certain whites feel that I have betrayed them by becoming friends with me, and certain whites feel that I have betrayed our culture. But we have become real friends.
Elizabeth Eckford and Helen Massery
outside Little Rock High School in 1998.